Toque of the town: high-profile chefs endow top hotels with lucrative luster

Toque of the town: high-profile chefs endow top hotels with lucrative luster

Jack Hayes

Since the days when the legendary August Escoffier reigned as “director of the kitchen” at the Hotel Ritz in Paris arid later at London’s Savoy and Carlton, luxury hoteliers have found that they can expand the value of their properties by putting top-name chefs in charge of signature restaurants.

In today’s media-energized world, savvy hotel owners are continuing to exploit the reputations of celebrated chefs, not simply to energize food-and-beverage operations but also to create national and even worldwide publicity for their lodging establishments.

“It’s a public-relations thing,” comments Gerard Pangaoud, former chef de cuisine for the fine-dining restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City in Arlington, Va.

As evidence of Pangaoud’s “irreplaceability,” Ritz-Carlton’s corporate management opted to shutter the restaurant where he’d presided — leaving only its Grill venue in operation — when he left to open the highly successful Gerald’s Place in nearby Washington, D.C.

And when 11-year-veteran chef de cuisine Guenter Seeger announced last year that he would be departing from the Dining Room at the flagship Ritz-Carlton Buckhead in Atlanta to launch Seeger’s, only one mile west, the hotel group led a painstaking search to find a world-class replacement

That search led to the hiring of not only Joel Antunes — an innovator in Thai-Asian-French fusion cuisine — for the Buckhead property but also the internationally known chefs Stefan Kauth and Gerard Feni, who respectively were named chef de cuisine at Ritz-Carlton fine-dining venues in Palm Beach, Fla., and Marina del Rev, Calif.

“Because of the mystique we’ve created with the Ritz-Carlton name, our fine-dining rooms have to be the standard-setters in their communities, and in certain destinations [particularly the corporate home market in Atlanta] we want to compete with any top, freestanding restaurant,” says Otto Svensson, the chain’s food-and-beverage vice president.

“They knew they had this huge pair of shoes to fill, and they have obviously chosen well with Joel Anlunes because even though his style is quite different from Guenter Seeger s, the Dining Room is still very busy, and [Antunes’] reputation is starting to travel,” notes Atlanta-based dining critic Christiane Lauterbach.

Likewise, when LeCirque-trained-and-James Beard Award-winning chef Gary Danko, who had been holding court in the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco, resigned to open Viognier at Draeger’s Culinary Center in San Mateo, Calif, the luxury hotel group wasted no time in recruiting a successor, Sylvan Portay, from Monte Carlo.

“Not only is Sylvan holding the position that Gary established for us — earning rave reviews in the local-and-national media — but he keeps aiming higher,” says spokeswoman Angela Jackson. “We’re still shooting for that coveted [Mobill] Five Star rating — the gold nugget of fine dining.”

In fact, the pursuit of celebrity culinary talent is not the sole domain of luxury chains like the Ritz-Carlton. Independent hotel properties — such as the Prescott in San Francisco; the Peabody in Memphis, Tenn.; the Seelbach in Louisville, Ky.; and the Delano in Miami Beach — have taken the same route with profitable results.

Back in 1989, when Prescott owners John Dem and Alan Greinetz partnered with celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck and the San Francisco-based Compton Hotel and Restaurant Group to launch Postrio as an adjoining restaurant venue, the move was considered risky.

Yet Dern continues to call that marriage — the first out-of-Los Angeles project for Wolfgange Puck — a raging success.

“Grossing more than $10 million a year for the past seven years is an indication of just how successful we’ve been,” Dern observes. He says the 180-seat, Puck-devised Postrio continues “to be a spot people want to come to — a couple of weeks ago we had President Clinton in for dinner.”

In addition to Puck, who serves as consultant, recruiter, trainer and motivator, Postrio’s executive-chef lineup includes the brother team of Mitchell and Steven Rosenthal, who are highly regarded in the San Francisco market. Before their arrival in 1994, Postrio’s kitchen was headed by David and Anne Gingrass, the husband-wife team who left that year to open the popular Hawthorne Lane in San Francisco.

“I’d like the Rosenthal brothers to stay on another hundred years,” Dem says. He acknowledges, as do other luxury hotel owners, that the task of replacing a talented chef and remarketing a property with a new culinary personality becomes an expensive task.

In that sense the owners of the Peabody in Memphis have been blessed with 15 years of loyalty from Jose Guiterrez — a protege of Paul Bocuse — who became chef de cuisine at the hotel’s gourmet restaurant, Chez Philippe, in 1983.

During his tenure Guiterrez and the hotel have been showered with honors by local, regional, and national food and restaurant critics. The chef himself has won numerous awards, including, in 1995, membership in les Maitre Cuisiniers de France and the rarely given title Master Chef from that elite association.

David Nichols, general manager at the Seelbach Hotel, says the strategy of hinng or partnering with celebrity chefs amounts to a recognition that of d and beverage continue to be among the most important ways to “sell” a luxury hotel.

The trick, he observes, lies in finding the right kind of person for the property. In the Seelbach’s case it meant a chef who would be comfortable in front of the community, not afraid of becoming the big fish in a small pond.

“It’s nothing more or less than a strategy to increase revenues,” Nichols explains. “That’s why we went looking for an executive chef of Jim Gerhardt’s caliber. To do great things, you have to have great people, and this has been a great marriage.”

The 40-year-old Gerhardt — a Culinary Institute of America graduate who worked for the Stouffer’s chain for 14 years and cooked with Dallas’ acclaimed Dean Fearing — has been supported since arriving at the Seelbach in 1995 with a strong-enough staff and promotional budget to allow his development as a local, regional and national personality.

“We look hard for opportunities to feature our chef,” Nichols says. Gerhardt “stands out as our representative. We get him very involved with customers. This adds a whole new dimension to our ability to sell. We’ve even lent him to other corporations. At the Bourbon Feslival, for example, one of the brands borrowed Jim to do some recipes and demonstrations.”

While some of the Seelbach s early promotions with Gerhardt did not pan out as expected, the momentum of continued effort is now paying off For example, Nichols expects an extravagant, 11-course “Titanic Dinner” at the hotel — whose Oakroom will re-create the ship’s dining ambience for the April 14 event — to be a typical sellout. More than half of the Oakroom’s business comes from local customers.

“It starts with a fundamental philosophy that the most important way to expose our product is through the food and beverage.” Nichols says. “A top-notch experience in the Oakroom invites a guest to stay with us when the occasion arises.”

Conversely, as Washington, D.C.-based chef Pangoud attests and as top hoteliers affirm, luxury guests have grown accustomed to expecting the best in food and beverage. Therefore, the hotels believe that it is their chefs’ responsibility to provide the best, and that those who don’t will lose business.

“After you reach a certain level, it’s a necessary accommodation a requirement,” Pangoud says. “At the beginning of the century, the best hotels were where you found the best chefs. The most famous of all was Escoffier, who started in Paris and expanded his reputation in London.”

In fact, when New York-based Ian Schrager Hotels launches its next luxury property, in London’s Covent Garden, the group will renew a relationship with China Grill Management — whose corporate chef Ephraim Kadish and signature chef Claude Troisgrois created the “tropical-French” menu for the Blue Door restaurant at the Delano Hotel in Miami Beach — to develop and operate the fine-dining concept.

Like the Schrager group’s sister property, Morgans Hotel in midtown Manhattan, the new London property will open with China Grill Management’s signature Asia to Cuba restaurant concept — the result of another collaboration with Troisgros, who grew up cooking at the Roanne, France, restaurant, founded by his father. Pierre, and uncle Jean.

Claude Trousers — who opened Roanne and Terrameter in Rio de Janeiro and a second Roanne in Sao Paulo and who also operated C.T. in Manhattan between 1994 to 1996 — lent his name and recipes to the Blue Door when the China Grill group took over operations there last year.

“China Grill Management’s superb track record of success and creativity in their New York and Miami restaurants make them the ideal choice for the Delano,” owner Ian Schrager declares.

“There’s a synergy between us and the Scbrager properties,” adds China Grill principal Jeffrey Chodorow. “Because each one of their hotels is so distinctive, our job becomes creating concepts that are out of the ordinary.”

Saying that a high percentage of Delano guests routinely dine at the restaurant, Chodorow claims that the Blue Door’s emergence as a hot destination makes it necessary for some would-be customers to check into the hotel just so they can have dinner there.

Following a long-standing tradition set by the Grand Bay Hotel in Coconut Grove, Miami’s luxury hotel niche has become crowded with name chefs.

The Grand Bay’s acclaimed Grand Cafe dining room, which has been associated with many top culinary names, now boasts Pascal Oudin as executive chef. A disciple of such luminaries as Roger Verge and Gaston Lenotre, Oudin was at the Colonnade Hotel in Coral Gables — a property he’d helped to open — before joining the Grand Bay.

Another noteworthy chef-hotel marriage in the same south Florida market is that of Johnny Vinczencz and the Astor Hotel in Miami Beach. Astor Place, which opened at the refurbished property two years ago and continues to draw big local and tourist patronage. originally was a concept by Boca Raton-based Unique Restaurant Concepts but since has become a partnership between Vinczencz and the hotel’s owner, Karim Masri.

Meanwhile the Colonnade Hotel in Boston is taking a related path as it completes the conversion of its former Cafe Promenade into Brasserie Jo, under a consulting partnership with Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises and chef Jean Joho.

Colonnade vice president and managing director David Coleila describes the licensing venture as a critical step to drive business and satisfy guests over three meal periods. “This is going to be very different from anything that’s been done as yet, he explains. “We’re going to run day-to-day operations, and Lettuce will be available as a long-term consultant should we need their input or direction.”

Colella, who worked at Chicago’s Ambassador East, said he’d begun talking with Lettuce Entertain You founder Richard Melman about cloning Brasserie Jo not long after the original restaurant’s debut in the Windy City.

“We wanted to have a legitimatebrasscrie in the French tradition, and after seeing Brasserie Jo, I knew it would be perfect. Now that we’re getting calls from restaurant reviewers all over the country, I’m feeling even more confident about the decision.” Colella adds.

Like Postrio at the Prescott Hotel in San Francisco and Le Cirque 2000 at the Palace Hotel in Manhattan, Brasserie Jo will operate as a freestanding restaurant because of its street entrance, but, also like the others, the concept offsets lobby access for Colonnade guests.

Yet as positive as Colella sounds, luxury hotelier Richard Cotter, managing director at New York’s Palace Hotel, seems even more enthusiastic. It was Cotter who contracted with the Maccioni family to operate Le Cirque 2000 off the Palace’s private courtyard.

“What we decided to do was create a marriage with one of the best operators in the country, and we believe that we’ve done it,” Cotter says, adding that there have been few luxury-hotel turnarounds as notable as that of the Palace — a once-prestigious property whose assets had fallen into receivership following a period of decline.

“The introduction of Le Cirque 2000 gave us the style we wanted to achieve. That was the catalyst to show bow significant the change was going to be,” Cotter explains. “But one of the things making it work so well is that we and the Maccionis are both perfectionists.”

COPYRIGHT 1998 Lebhar-Friedman, Inc.

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